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Chapter 2: Articulatory, Auditory and Acoustic Phonetics. Phonology
2.1. Phonetics and phonology
2.2. Articulatory phonetics
2.3. Auditory phonetics
2.4. Acoustic phonetics
2.5. Synchronic, diachronic, comparative phonology
2.6. Varieties of English. The international spread of English. Regional
variation. Accents. Standard English and Received Pronunciation.
2.7. Sound Change. The gap between spelling and pronunciation. The
International Phonetic Alphabet. Homonyms, homo-phones,
2.7. Sound Change. The gap between spelling and pronunciation.
The International Phonetic Alphabet. Homonyms,
homophones, homographs
As shown above, the invention of alphabetic writing represented a huge step
forward on the way to a simplified graphic symbolization of the words of spoken
languages. Early systems of spelling were generally based on a one-to-one
correspondence between the graphic representation and the spoken language, in other
words one and the same sound (or, rather, phoneme, as we shall see later) was always
represented by one and the same graphic symbol (letter) and a graphic symbol could only
be pronounced in one way. (a one-to-one relation). However, as the pronunciation of
many languages underwent important changes along centuries, the spelling did not
always keep the pace with these transformations. The example of English is, probably,
the most relevant, among the modern European languages at least. To the dismay of
foreign students of the language, but probably no less to that of primary school native
speakers as well, the gap created between the pronunciation of words and orthography in
modern English is sometimes stunning: even consonants, a usually safer ground than
vowels, can sometimes reserve unpleasant surprises. How can an average English speaker
account for the variation from a velar plosive to a palato-alveolar affricate or fricative in
examples like get [get], gem [ʤem] and gendarme [ʒɑ:ndɑ:m] or give [gɪv], gipsy
[ʤɪpsɪ] and gîte [ʒi:t] respectively? Why should one and the same group of letters – ch
– be read in three different ways in words like child [ʧaɪld], charade [ʃə’rɑ:d] and
character [‘kærɪktə]? How can we account for the fact that words like four, cuff, laugh,
pharmacy and lieutenant use five different ways for representing one and the same
sound: /f/? The explanation that present-day English spelling actually represents (or,
anyway, is much closer to) the pronunciation of late middle English can hardly sweeten
the pill. The grim reality we are confronted with is that we have to separately learn the
pronunciation and the spelling of the words of the language as any correspondence we
might be tempted to establish between the two can prove utterly misleading.14
Suggestions have been made to simplify English orthography and “tune” it to the
pronunciation of the words. It is precisely the extraordinary variety of the language
mentioned above that seems to be, however, one of the major obstacles in this direction,
as, it has been argued, spelling remains one of the major means of preserving the unity of
the language. If it were adapted to the way people pronounce the words, then one and the
same word could have so many spellings that different users of English could hardly
recognize it.
The need was felt, then, for a handier, more accessible system of graphic
representation of the sounds that should somehow parallel the normal spelling but be
based on a more logical, one-to-one correspondence with the phonemic system of the
language. The idea of a so-called phonetic alphabet was thus born. At the end of the 19th
century a group of phoneticians led by a French linguist, Paul Passy, created the
International Phonetic Association and devised a system of graphic representation of
sounds that was actually the first phonetic alphabet. Gradually, the system was enriched
and improved so that it should not be linked to any particular language, but rather be apt
to represent graphically the pronunciation of words in any language spoken on earth.
Since the members of the association came from countries where the Latin alphabet is
used (which is, anyway, the predominant alphabet on most of the five continents of the
world), the symbols used by the newly devised phonetic alphabet are mainly taken from
this alphabet. Diacritics are sometimes used to represent certain sounds. As far as English
is concerned, some of its sounds (the interdental fricatives, for instance) are represented
by symbols taken from the Greek alphabet, the respective sounds being found in the
Greek language as well. Ever since the first phonetic alphabet was created, one of the
main tasks of the International Phonetic Association has been to keep it updated,
enriching and adapting it to the various different idioms as well as to publicize the
changes brought to the alphabet. The alphabet of the International Phonetic Association,
commonly called the International Phonetic Alphabet is the one conventionally used by
all major language dictionaries and encyclopedias in order to represent the pronunciation
of both common and proper names. It has proved to be an extremely useful tool, as it has
the major advantage of using one and only one (always the same) symbol for the same
sound disregarding thus spelling peculiarities that are often so puzzling and misleading
for students of a language whose orthography is essentially based on etymological
principles. Conventionally, the graphic symbols used to represent pronunciation are
placed between square brackets.
The distance existing between the pronunciation of words and their spelling
creates a special problem in languages like English, one that is unknown to languages
like Romanian where spelling is based on a phonemic principle. All languages have
words that have similar pronunciations but have entirely different meanings. They have
Bernard Shaw’s famous sarcastic suggestion that English people should be consistent and spell
the word fish as ghoti (gh to represent the sound f as in laugh, o to represent the vowel w as in women and
ti to represent the palato-alveolar fricative • as in nation) is quoted by all phoneticians
different origins, different meanings and their phonetic similarity is due to sound changes
undergone by words that were originally entirely distinct. These words are called
homonyms, the word coming from Greek suggesting their sameness (Gk.. homos = same).
All homonyms have both the same pronunciation and the same spelling in a language like
Romanian: e.g. mare (adj., big) and mare (n., sea), a semăna (to resemble) and a semăna
(to sow), pot (1st pers sg. and 3rd pers, pl. of the present indicative of the verb a putea,
can) and pot (stake in a game of cards), ceară 3rd person sg. and plural present
subjunctive) and ceară (wax). The difference between spelling and pronunciation in
English introduces a further distinction as words may have similar pronunciations and be
homophones (or homophonous lexical items) but have different spellings. Two English
words will be then homonymous, strictly speaking, if they are not only homophones, but
they are also homographs (they are spelt in the same way). Thus, the modal verb may is a
homonym of the noun May (the month of the year) or the noun type is a homonym of the
verb type as they are both homophones and homographs, while pairs of words like pray
and prey, meat and meet, sow and sew, will only be homophones but not genuine
homonyms as they are not also homographs. We can come across the opposite situation,
when two words are homographs but are pronounced differently: e.g. row (of chairs) and
row (quarrel) bow (the weapon) and bow (the synonym of bend); sow the verb and sow
the female pig.